Pony Shows and Horse Trading

Councilmembers Trot to the East Side; Some Claim Attendance at Swap Meet

East Austin residents turned out in force to tell councilmembers their concerns about crime in their neighborhoods
photograph by Alan Pogue

Last week's was one helluva cramped agenda agenda. The long-awaited unveiling of the sordid police audit, Jackie Goodman's $25 million corporate welfare check to FAIR, Ronney Reynolds' politically convenient crusade against the garbage sticker fee, and Bruce Todd's Lamar Bridge expansion were only some of last week's haps.

A change of scenery punctuated last Thursday's meeting when the whole council entourage -- including city staff, reporters, and gadflies -- left the city hall annex in mid-meeting, regrouping 15 minutes later at the Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center in the historic Zaragoza neighborhood in Central East Austin. The public hearing was called by Councilmember Daryl Slusher, in response to the death of Northeast Austin resident Alma Ward, who was recently killed in a convenience store parking lot at the corner of Loyola and Springdale by a stray bullet from an altercation between warring gangs. "It shook the conscience of the city," Slusher rang out in a press release. (It also grabbed the imagination of politicians -- last week council wannabe Bill Spelman chose the shooting site as a backdrop for his campaign kickoff announcement).

Slusher and the rest of the council asked for community solutions to crime. Scores obliged. About 30 attended the first half of the hearing at the city hall annex, and about 100 locals showed up at the second half in East Austin. The hearing was split because, due to a posting error, many mistakenly believed that the meeting would take place at city hall. Interestingly, that's what Eric Mitchell and many of his followers wanted. Mitchell, remember, voted against the East Austin locale without explanation, apparently protesting East Austin's high-crime stereotype. Even more interesting is that his supporters went to the city hall annex, while a primarily Mexican-American crowd gathered at Conley-Guerrero.

Though the messengers were divided, the message united around a plea for holistic solutions to root causes of crime: environmental racism, poverty, and social programs. We don't need more police, but a broader view of what policing should be, the crowd chimed. The meeting was sometimes combative, sometimes optimistic, but emotions climaxed with the final speech. "I can't keep my baby next to the window because I'm afraid," wept area resident Antoinette Humphrey. "It shouldn't be like that. When they said my home loan would go through I praised God and said, `I'm getting out of here.' I wish everyone could leave."

The police audit released last Tuesday echoed the call for a community effort against crime. Amid numerous examples of financial mismanagement, the audit concluded that the APD's six-year fling with community policing has resulted in a more modern mindset, but that operationally, little has changed. To fully implement the community concept, more resources -- to get police from out of their cars and onto the streets via foot patrols -- will undoubtedly be required.

Those resources will be increasingly harder to come by, even more so if Jackie Goodman meets demands by the Federation of Austin's Industrial Ratepayers (FAIR, the group that represents the Electric Utility Department's six industrial users) for a $4.2 million apiece annual electric rate break for the next seven or so years. Much to the dismay of consumer advocates, who say it's an un-FAIR deal for Austin's residential ratepayers (i.e., you and me), Goodman has kept the deal alive over the last several weeks, tweaking it, trying to get the FAIR corporations to promise to stay with Austin's utility longer than their original offer. Goodman explains that with impending deregulation, the city's utility must find a way to keep its largest customers on board, even if it means giving them an incredibly sweet deal. "Deregulation may not be here yet, but that's not keeping other utilities from approaching our easily identifiable customers and making deals now," Goodman says. "Cost of service may be important to us [with regard to how much we charge customers], but it's not necessarily the bottom-line for competing utilities."

W. Scott McCollough, the consumer advocate who is representing Austin's residential and small commercial ratepayers, thinks Goodman should take the FAIR deal off the respirator and allow it to die. "The rates the city are offering them are just too low," McCollough says. "And it'll be the residential ratepayers who will have to make it up."

Ironically, even though Goodman refuses to listen to McCollough on this issue, she wants the city to hire him for $100,000 to act as a consultant on making the EUD more efficient. A heftier $400,000 deal for McCollough to join city consultants Metzler & Associates (we're already paying them $2.2 million) in making the EUD lean and mean didn't pass muster with the rest of the council last week, so Goodman is trying again to put McCollough on the payroll. She thinks his regulatory and legal expertise and consumer advocacy background are a necessary element that's missing on the city's current EUD strategy team. Earlier this week Goodman had to dicker with the $100,000 proposed contract that city staff drafted for McCollough. The language would have straight jacketed the energetic advocate by having him report to Metzler and the city rather than to us, the ratepayers. Under that contract, McCollough, who has been taking an adverse position to the city with regards to the FAIR deal, would have been virtually co-opted. Perhaps city staffers thought $100,000 was a fair price to pay to muzzle a mouth like McCollough's. The contract's offensive language, according to Goodman, has been changed.

Good thing, says McCollough: "It would have been a conflict of interest. I represent consumers, not the city."

However, McCollough still may have a hornets' nest of conflicts to tiptoe through before Thursday's over. Although Goodman denies the deals are linked, word among councilmembers is that she will not vote for the FAIR deal unless her consumer advocate contract for McCollough is approved. "That's what she told me," says one councilmember. If an action McCollough takes (i.e., accepting a contract) serves to secure the FAIR deal, McCollough says he will have to leave the $100,000 on the table and walk away. "I can't benefit from [the council] screwing my clients."

So far, McCollough says, he has no personal knowledge that there's any horse-trading going on; and if there is, Goodman's not admitting it to this reporter. When asked if she will vote against FAIR if she doesn't get McCollough on board, Goodman would only say cryptically, "That would certainly be a decision I would have to make."

Speaking of horse-trading, we only wish we could find a way to convince Todd, Mitchell, and Reynolds to drop their support for Goodman's corporate welfare proposal while still supporting her plan to hire a consumer advocate to keep watch over the EUD streamlining process. Come on guys, when you're out of farm animals, common sense will do.

Also last week:

Postponed was Todd's proposal to expand the Lamar Bridge from four to six lanes, after an executive session on benefits for firefighters went longer than expected. Todd and Public Works Director Peter Rieck say that $1.8 million in state and federal funds is on the line if the city doesn't hire a general contractor to begin expanding the bridge pronto. Area residents like Karen Akins, Austin Neighborhoods Council VP, don't want the additional traffic and higher speed of a bigger bridge. They point out that almost half of the $1.8 million -- $889,000 from the state's Urban Streets Program -- can be used anywhere in the city, and therefore doesn't need to be spent on the expansion. They also note that the program is intended for street maintenance, not the addition of new streets.

And finally, Reynolds' idea to postpone "Pay As You Throw," which would require residents to to put a $2.19 sticker on every trash bag that doesn't fit into a city-issued can, was promptly trashed by the council. Over his six-year councilship, Reynolds had voted for the program five times. But with two months 'til E-day, he suddenly started complaining that the fee was unfair for residents who had received 30-gallon garbage cans, instead of the 60- or 90-gallon cans issued by the city. Never mind that right now residents can request 60-gallon cans.

"This is free publicity for Ronney's campaign," came the refrain from a handful of opponents. Only Mitchell, who's also up for re-election this May, hung with Reynolds. Mitchell believes that if he must pay for excess garbage, then, to be fair, he should be reimbursed when his garbage can has room to spare. By that logic, perhaps all Austinites should be reimbursed the cost of their traffic tickets when driving under the speed limit. Mitchell created no credit for extra garbage can space when he, like Reynolds, voted to approve the program last September. But that doesn't mean Mitchell can't reimburse himself for his own mistake by renting out space in his can to neighbors with excess trash.

Reynolds' proposal went down the chute quickly, as the council voted 5-2 to continue the program. An amendment passed from Goodman requesting a waiver of the July 30, 1997 expiration date on free stickers now being distributed as an introductory offer. Goodman also ordered city staff to develop a variable rate for the monthly garbage fee on your utility bill. Currently, all households pay $12.99 a month. But soon, rates could go up or down, depending on the size of your city-issued garbage can.

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